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Dole Holds His Ground About 40%

Basically, they dueled to a draw. And that may not help Bob Dole.

Sunday night, the Republican challenger entered the first presidential debate needing to change the dynamics of this campaign, to put himself on the radar screen. He needed to sway the hearts and minds of millions - not just the undecideds but also the soft Bill Clinton backers who appear to be sticking with the president by default.

Dole needed to give them a compelling reason to switch sides. What he gave them was a performance that was solid and often funny. The Dole wit, which had been AWOL for much of the campaign, made a surprise reappearance.

But when the show was over, it appeared unlikely that a sea change in the public mood is at hand. Most presidential debates tend to reinforce, rather than change, the voters’ evaluations of the candidates. And this one seemed no exception.

Clinton showed up with a plan in mind and executed it, making the case that people are doing better than they were when he took office.

That was precisely the tack used by Ronald Reagan when he successfully framed the terms of the 1984 campaign. As Clinton contended Sunday night, “It is not midnight in America, Senator. We are better off now than we were four years ago.”

Dole’s life would be easier if the economy was doing worse. Denied that weapon, he sought Sunday night to paint the president as a slippery character with a hidden liberal agenda.

When Dole said he wanted to build “a bridge to the truth,” he was raising the credibility issue. When he told Clinton he would not comment “on what has happened in your past about drugs,” he was in fact commenting on Clinton’s quip about not inhaling marijuana in college. And when Dole began accusing Clinton of being a liberal, he was implying that Clinton was decadent.

It was clear that Dole was trying to rattle Clinton, who is known to have a hot temper in private. But, for the most part, Clinton stayed on script - seeking to convey the sense that he is steering the ship of state through placid waters and that switching pilots would be a risky move.

It is important in these debates never to underestimate the importance of style. What people remember about 1960 was Richard Nixon’s gray pallor, not whether he out-pointed JFK on the debate over Quemoy and Matsu.

What people remember about 1980 was Reagan’s commanding presence and his jab at Jimmy Carter (“There you go again”), not the issues.

What viewers of this debate may remember is that Bob Dole tried hard to take Clinton down. It was a tough assignment.

Trailing badly in the polls, he had to give people a clear reason why they should dump an incumbent in a time of general peace and prosperity, while drawing a meaningful contrast. Yet he had to do it without appearing too negative, partisan, or mean - or else risk burnishing his old image as a hit man.

And by taking on this task, he wound up giving short shrift to the centerpiece of his own campaign: his plan to slash taxes across the board by 15 percent.

He spent little time talking about it, although Clinton returned to the topic several times, to warn that it was a “risky” idea that would “blow a hole” in the budget deficit.

Clinton didn’t stay above the fray, however. When provoked, he simply tried to hang Newt Gingrich around Dole’s neck.

Dole has campaigned virtually all year without mentioning the “Contract With America,” and Clinton was comfortable reminding viewers that Dole had cast votes last year against Medicare, environmental cleanups and education loans.

Sunday night, Dole found himself on the defensive, spending valuable time insisting that he was not an unfeeling person.

“I care about people,” he said, citing votes he had cast two decades ago on food stamps and school lunches.

“I’m not some extremist out there.”

And then there was the L-word, “liberal.”

That has been a Republican staple for decades. Indeed, as a vice-presidential candidate in 1976, Dole tried the same tack in a national debate with Walter Mondale.

And it certainly worked eight years ago, when Republican presidential candidate George Bush pinned the tag on Michael Dukakis. Clinton referred to this tactic as “a golden oldie.”

Sunday night, Dole went so far as to note that Clinton had worked in 1972 for a well-known liberal, Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern (while adding “George McGovern is a friend of mine”).

All told, it appears Dole may have failed to gain the traction he desperately needs.

The overnight polls may provide some hints about the public verdict, but even his own people contend that Dole must get above 40 percent very soon in the polls if this race is going to become competitive.

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